Learn about the most common diabetes tests and how medication can help get your blood glucose levels in line.

Glucose is a critical source of energy that powers our bodies—it feeds the brain, muscles, and tissues. When we eat, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose. This causes the pancreas to release insulin, a hormone that allows glucose to enter the cells via the bloodstream.

If you have type 2 diabetes, paying attention to your glucose levels is extremely important. That’s because with this condition the pancreas isn’t producing enough insulin necessary to maintain the right balance of glucose, which can cause a buildup in the blood and serious complications, such as damaged blood vessels and organs.

Here’s what you need to know about glucose, how it’s tested, and which medications can help maintain normal glucose levels for you.

How Glucose Levels Are Tested

Several different lab tests are used to diagnose and monitor diabetes by testing glucose levels. The three most important tests include:

  • Fasting plasma glucose (FPG): This test measures blood glucose levels after an overnight fast of at least eight hours. A diabetes diagnosis is made when the fasting blood glucose level is 126 mg/dL or higher on at least two tests. A normal FPG level is less than 100 mg/dL. Fasting before blood tests ensures that glucose levels are not affected by food intake.
  • Oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT): If your FPG results are normal but diabetes is still suspected, you’ll take an oral glucose tolerance test. You’ll have to fast overnight and then drink a solution containing a high amount of glucose. Your blood will be drawn two hours later to see its response to the glucose. A diagnosis of diabetes with this test requires a glucose level of 200 mg/dL or higher. A normal OGTT level is 140 mg/dL.
  • Hemoglobin A1c test: The A1c test is a simple blood test that measures the amount of glucose attached to hemoglobin, an oxygen-carrying protein in red blood cells. An A1c level of 6.5 percent or higher indicates diabetes. Those with diabetes get this test about every three months to continuously monitor their levels and no fasting is required.

The Importance of Self-Testing

“Diabetes treatment depends on measurable results such as blood glucose levels, which help with tweaking medications or an insulin regimen,” says Anis Rehman, MD, an endocrinologist and assistant professor at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. “Since lifestyle changes and dietary intake affect blood glucose, patients with diabetes get prompt feedback with self-tests, a vital step in diabetes control.”

Done by pricking your finger and releasing a drop of blood onto a test strip that is read by a meter, self-testing is virtually painless and extremely effective for staying on top of your blood glucose levels. Your doctor will give you the range your blood glucose should be within based on your complete health history.

Medications for Managing Blood Glucose

In addition to regular testing, working with your doctor to make sure you have a treatment plan in place will keep blood glucose levels stable. Drugs like metformin (generic Glucophage) work by reducing insulin resistance, while a class of drugs known as sulfonylureas like glimepiride (generic Amaryl) and glipizide (generic Glucotrol) increase insulin production. Acarbose (generic Precose) reduces carbohydrate absorption by the gastrointestinal system. Because the drugs listed above act in different ways to lower blood sugar levels, they may be used together when taking only a single pill does not have the desired effects. Finally, there are several types of injectable forms of insulin when medications are not sufficiently effective.

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